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Is Paleo Not Working For You? How to Fix an Unhealthy Healthy Diet

Why did you go Paleo?

It’s the first question a lot of people in our community ask. 80% of people will answer with one of a few things; they were sick of being sick, they needed to get away from problematic foods, they wanted to fix their digestion, cognition, or behaviors surrounding food. We all started in much the same boat, and found Paleo to be the saving grace we were looking for.

The inevitable next question is how?

For most people, the first step to Paleo is some form of elimination diet. Whether it was a Whole30, Paleo Challenge at the local CrossFit gym, a Primal Blueprint Challenge, etc., elimination diets are a great way to get away from poor nutrition and towards a diet rich in real food. That leaves you feeling pretty damn good…for a while.

When was the last time you thought about your new, healthy diet with a degree of skepticism? Sure, you’re eating real food, but are you really doing what’s best for you?

We do elimination diets to get away from problematic foods like allergens, hyper-palatable processed fare, and foods that are dense in calories but lacking in nutrition. We also do them to get away from problematic behaviors, like food addiction and unstoppable cravings.

But problematic foods don’t stop with grains, sugar, and dairy. Depending on context, your hashtag real-food fare could be doing just as much damage as what you were eating before. The following common Paleo foods can be just as problematic as some non-Paleo fare:

  • Common Paleo allergens: nuts, eggs, avocados, nightshades, seafood
  • Hyper-Palatable “Paleo” foods: Paleo desserts, packaged Paleo snacks (banana chips etc.), certain fruits, “safe” starches doused with fat, heavily processed meats like bacon
  • Calorie-Dense Paleo foods: nuts, nut butters, oils, starches,

Check out the 4 Horsemen of Paleo for more along these lines.

Furthermore, your behaviors don’t go away just because you cut out certain things. No, sugar is not the only addictive food on the planet. Once again, context matters. You can develop just as much of an addiction and problematic cravings for seemingly healthy foods.

My Strange Addiction: Paleo Edition

Anecdote time! I’ve been Paleo in one way or another since I was 16 years old. Coming from a childhood filled with cereal and pasta, it was the exact change I needed to become healthy. It’s all been great, but once every few years, I find myself becoming a little too comfortable, and entrenched in behaviors that really stack the odds against me.

In the last year, I developed an addiction…an odd addiction. An addiction I didn’t think was an addiction at all.  The culprit was sweet potatoes, which I feel stupid even saying. Sweet potatoes are nutritious, and about as far as processed as it gets. I strength train and do Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, so the carbohydrates do me good. So what gives?

Well, one day I just kind of realized it…I felt shitty. I was over-consuming sweet potatoes to the point where I could barely walk around. My digestion was all over the place, as was my cognition. I’d think about sweet potatoes all day, specifically doused in coconut oil. Starch plus fat in a package that I could and did eat like I wasn’t going to wake up tomorrow.

Sound familiar?

Just because I was eating high quality foods did not mean that I was doing myself any favors. Problematic behaviors and thought processes made what’s essentially a healthy food into a really bad choice for me.

The lesson is that a Paleo/Primal/real food diet is a great starting point, but you might need to make additional tweaks based on your individual needs.

How to know if you need a (further) elimination diet

How do you know if your Paleo plan is working for you? Step back for a moments and ask yourself if you suffer from any of the following symptoms:

  • Bad digestion
  • Bad cognition
  • General fatigue or low energy
  • A stall in body composition goals
  • Poor sleep
  • Food cravings (even if the craving is for almonds or strawberries)

If any of those sound like you, it might be time to re-consider what you’re doing and make some small tweaks. Let’s go about this systematically:

  1. Start with introspection

  • Step zero: be relentlessly honest with yourself. We all like to be right, and we will go to great lengths to justify our actions. I justified my food cravings and addictions by thinking along the lines of “it could be worse!” I thought, “well you can’t be addicted to something that’s good for you, right? At least I’m not gorging on sweets!” While there is a grain of truth to that, there’s still a problem that underlies it, and that’s what needs to be fixed.
  • Identify the problem. Look at the list above and figure out precisely what your issue is. Is your issue a behavioral one, or a physical one?
  • Identify your problem foods. Record your meals for a few days, and write down how you feel after you consume them. The questions laid out in Robb Wolf’s Wired to Eat are an excellent tool for this. Ask yourself, are you digesting well? Are you having consistent blood sugar? Are you thinking about (fill in the blank food) all day the same way a coke addict things about his next hit?
  1. Create a plan to take care of it

  • Eliminate your problem food for a set time frame. 30 days is a good standard. Some people might need more time, others less.
  • Get the problematic food out of your house. Establish a rule for yourself that you can not and will not buy it at the grocery store, either.
  • Plan what you will eat instead. Create a menu and shopping list of foods that you will eat, and stock up on those so you’re not left completely in the dark.
  • Make the plan as simple as possible. I like to go insanely basic, even boring for these plans. Every meal looks like a hunk of protein, a side of veggies, plenty of herbs and spices, and a drizzling of fat for flavor. Water to drink, maybe the occasional broth and/or fermented food. That’s it. Once again, the food matrix in Wired to Eat is a great resource for this.
  1. Execute the plan

  • Keep recording. See what happens to your cravings, blood sugar, etc. Write about how you feel about your cravings and stuff. Keep recording how you feel after meals, how you feel about that food, et cetera.
  • Be present. Is your problem still not going away after 10+ days of eliminating that food? Something else might be the culprit here. Keep paying attention to what you’re eating and how you feel around meal time.
  • After your trial period, try a re-introduction period and see how you react. Not to beat a dead horse, but keep recording. Has your behavior changed? Have your cravings gone away? Are you able to digest better?

Taking it to the Next Level

Maybe you don’t just have one problematic food – maybe it’s an entire category of things. Maybe your diet needs a categorical overhaul. If that’s the case, then an even stricter elimination protocol might be just the ticket you need. Here are a few of my favorites for when I need a hard reset

  1. Autoimmune Paleo: This plan cuts out LOTS of common “Paleo” allergens – stuff you might not have even known you were allergic to! Dr. Sarah Ballantyne is my go-to resource for educating people on AIP – check out here introductory guide here.
  2. A Ketogenic Diet: This plan cuts out carbohydrates, a source of digestive stress for many of us. Also has been shown to improve cognition in certain people. Ketogains is a great resource for the whys and hows of the diet.

None of these plans are silver bullet, end-all-be-all-all-things-for-everyone-all-the-time. Nothing is. Approach all of this stuff with relentless honesty until you find a plan that is sustainable and works for you.

What are your problematic foods? Do you have a strange Paleo addiction? What’s your plan for taking care of it? Let us know in the comments, and best of luck to you!

Salmon image licensed under the Creative Commons.

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Benjamin Nutt

Benjamin is a fitness enthusiast with a passion for human health and happiness. He is a graduate of the University of Colorado with a BA in Anthropology. He’s been implementing and experimenting with Ancestral diet and lifestyle protocols since 2010, driven by a passion to optimize his health and lifestyle. Benjamin is thrilled to join […]

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